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Divided We Stand

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A woman still celebrating the bar mitzvah of her son several days after the event came over to Burg and gave him candy (the traditional sweets for a sweet occasion). Then a much older woman walked up to him and explained in Hebrew that she was the grandmother of Yisrael, Tehila, and Orit Cohen, three siblings aged 7 to 12, all of whom lost limbs when their school bus was bombed by terrorists in Gaza only weeks earlier.

The woman, whose face was drawn by sadness, told Burg she did "not understand the acts of the other side." Then she looked up at the sky and said she would "pray to God to introduce wisdom to all the leaders."

The next night, with a heavy rain falling in sheets against the walls of the Old City, I made my way to the elegant American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem for coffee with Meron Benvenisti. Drinking a double espresso and chain-smoking as if his life depended on it, the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem held out little hope of wisdom from either side.

"The city is not ready for a permanent solution," he says. "The whole approach of looking for the ultimate solution is not only impractical but in itself creates tension. Because only when you try to come up with a permanent solution do the two sides begin to understand how far apart they really are."

"Only when you try to come up with a permanent solution do the two sides begin to understand how far apart they really are."

Despite Benvenisti's hard-earned cynicism, many on both sides also know how close they actually were at various moments to an understanding. "It takes time," Amirav says, "and maybe it will take different leadership on both sides."

But he believes that in his lifetime, there will be a divided yet open city. A city without checkpoints between East and West and with unsupervised movement between the two sides. A city in which the Palestinians control their own destiny and the Israelis can live peacefully, relieved of the burden of the occupier.

The official entry points for visa control and Customs, and to prevent the entry of terrorists, would be outside the city boundaries. Basic services like water, sewage, and electricity would be kept intact where it makes sense, rather than split in two. The primary change might be which local authority the bill would come from.

Critics argue that security would be a nightmare and that this setup would result in chaos and virtually unrestrained violence. They point to the repeated nighttime sniper attacks on Gilo over the past six months as simply a small taste of what would happen if the city were divided. The reason, they argue, that Gilo is the only Jerusalem neighborhood where there have been these kinds of incidents is that Beit Jala -- the village where the snipers fire from -- is outside the city limits and under the control of the Palestinian Authority, not the Israelis.

It is true that as long as the Israelis control the entire city, they can pursue and arrest people in East Jerusalem. But in a shared city, mutual interests should ensure quiet. "Of course we did worst-case scenarios where we'd have to establish checkpoints and roadblocks and retake control," says Amirav. "We would not enter into this blindly."

In this vision of a peaceful, divided Jerusalem, the Old City, that one square kilometer that is perhaps the most fought-over piece of real estate in history, would be shared by the two sides (including the Temple Mount) and policed by an elite, specially trained and educated force. It would be an opportunity, in the city of peace, for the Israelis and Palestinians to have something together.

It's a vision of the promised land that seems as magical -- and as difficult for contemporary minds to believe -- as anything in the Old Testament. Which doesn't mean it's not possible. "This is a conflict between two groups afraid that their very self-identity will be denied," says Amirav. "What we really want is for the Palestinians to recognize our deep historical and religious connection to this land. And they refuse. Why? Because for them, it's too dangerous to say we're partners in this place because that means it's really not theirs."

On the other hand, the Palestinians want Israelis to acknowledge their responsibility -- not completely, but at least partially -- in the Palestinians' suffering. "Everybody talks about security and trust and this much land or that much land, and these are all technicalities," Amirav says finally. "The real issue is identity, and we are both not ready yet. But the minute Arafat will say, 'Yes, you can share this mountain. It's yours, too,' I'll know the time has come."


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